Con Coughlin, defence editor
Hundreds of millions of pounds of British foreign aid given to Nigeria to help combat Boko Haram terrorists is instead being used to fund a witch-hunt against opposition politicians, it is being claimed.
Britain has committed to spending £860 million in foreign aid to Nigeria, which now boasts Africa’s largest economy, to help support the country’s efforts to crush Boko Haram terror group, which has been responsible for a spate of outrages, including the kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls.
But Western officials are now raising concerns that the government of the country’s recently elected leader, President Muhammadu Buhari, is misusing the funds to persecute political opponents.
Since Mr Buhari came to power last July, a number of prominent members of the former ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have been arrested and imprisoned without charge. Among those detained was the party’s official spokesperson.
Most of the arrests have been sanctioned by the government-controlled Economic and Financial Crime Commission, which was set up to tackle corruption and receives funding from the Department for International Development.
But while Mr Buhari’s government continues to use British aid money to target his political opponents, it is proving less effective at tackling the Islamist-run Boko Haram terrorist group.
Much of the aid Britain provides to Nigeria is aimed at helping the country’s security forces to become more effective at tackling Boko Haram, which boasts of its links with Islamic State (Isil) and achieved international notoriety two years ago after kidnapping 276 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria two years ago.
Scores of British military personnel – including members of the Special Forces – are based in Nigeria helping to train the military to tackle Boko Haram. But despite Mr Buhari’s pledge during last year’s general election campaign that he would make tackling Boko Haram one of his top priorities, there is growing concern among Western officials that the Nigerian military is failing to take effective action against the terrorists.
This has resulted in Boko Haram now being regarded as the world’s deadliest terrorist organisation, responsible for more deaths than Isil. There are now reports that the group is trying to train kidnapped children to act as suicide bombers.
“This is a scandal in the making,” explained a senior U.S. official. “There is no doubt the growing strength of Boko Haram is because President Buhari is far more interested in settling scores with his political opponents that concentrating his energy on defeating terrorists,” “The result is that Nigeria is starting to look more and more like a police state while Boko Haram just goes from strength to strength.”
Another Western diplomat added: “If Buhari was serious about fighting corruption he would be focusing all of his efforts on targeting corruption that is impeding Nigeria’s ability to focus its efforts on tackling Boko Haram.”
Accusations that Nigeria is abusing British aid will add to the growing controversy over Downing Street’s commitment to spend 0.7 percent of GDP on the foreign aid budget. Last week the Telegraph reported that DFID was under pressure to cancel £200 million of foreign aid to Tanzania following concerns over a widely condemned election.
This resulted in Dr Liam Fox, the former Defence Secretary, accusing the government of “spraying money around” simply to achieve the 0.7 per cent target.
Western officials have expressed concern about Mr Buhari’s increasingly autocratic style of government since he came to power last year. A retired major-general, Mr Buhari, 73, previously headed a brutal military dictatorship following a coup in December 1983, which lasted until he was overthrown by another coup in 1985.
Now political opponents claim he is returning to his old dictatorial ways, abusing British aid meant to improve Nigeria’s ability to tackle Boko Haram to consolidate his hold on power.
Apart from the concerns over British aid, American officials are also angry that $2.1 billion of aid given to the Nigerian military to tackle Boko Haram has not been properly accounted for.
Mr Buhari’s claim that he is winning the war against Boko Haram – recently claimed the group no longer poses a serious threat – has been undermined by recent revelations the Nigerian authorities have tried to cover up the fact that hundreds more schoolchildren have been abducted by Boko Haram.
Human rights activists have no confirmed that around 400 women and children were abducted last year by militants from the Nigerian town of Damasak.
It is now believed that some of these children may have been trained as suicide bombers. U.S. counter-terrorism experts say at least 105 women and girls trained by Boko Haram have taken part in suicide attacks since June 2014.